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How many stages of cancer are there?

It depends on which cancer you are talking about and which staging system the doctor is using. Some types of cancer have more than one type of staging system.

Most types of cancer have 4 stages, numbered from 1 to 4. Often doctors write the stage down in roman numerals. So you may see stage 4 written down as stage IV.

Sometimes doctors talk about stage 0 cancer, for example in skin cancer. Stage 0 is also called carcinoma in situ. It means that there are cancerous cells there. But they are all contained within the tissue they developed in. They haven't broken through the basement membrane, which means they can't spread through the bloodstream or the lymphatic system or into other tissues nearby.  Your doctor may also describe this as a non invasive cancer.

Here is a brief summary of what the stages mean for most types of cancer.

Stage 1 usually means a cancer is relatively small and contained within the organ it started in.

Stage 2 usually means the cancer has not started to spread into surrounding tissue, but the tumour is larger than in stage 1. Sometimes stage 2 means that cancer cells have spread into lymph nodes close to the tumour. This depends on the particular type of cancer.

Stage 3 usually means the cancer is larger. It may have started to spread into surrounding tissues and there are cancer cells in the lymph nodes in the area.

Stage 4 means the cancer has spread from where it started to another body organ. This is also called secondary or metastatic cancer.

There is information about staging systems in the about cancer section. The sections about each cancer type also have a page about staging and what the different stages mean.

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Updated: 17 April 2013